Monday 30 January 2023

Tom Verlaine RIP and the general failure of the music industry to cherish talent

 On Sunday morning I awoke to the sad news that punk guitar legend Tom Verlaine has passed away. Listening to the work of Tom and Television in 2023, if you didn't know the story, you would be forgiven for asking why on earth he was ever labelled as punk. His best known work ears little relation to the work of other proto punk bands in the USA and the UK. Apart from a few demo's subsequently released on bootlegs, etc, his work with Richard Hell (the man credited with inventing the punk look) is almost forgotten. Hell departed to form the Heartbreakers with Ex NY Dolls Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan. Television added Fred Smith from Blondie. 

The band released Marquee Moon in 1977 followed by Adventure in 1988 and then split up. Verlaine sporadically released solo albums and there was the odd Television reformation. The bands material was reflective and Verlaine can properly be described as a guiatr virtuoso as well as an amazing songwriter. Verlaines lyrics were reflective and detatched. The songs were highly layered, but without the pomposity associated with genre's such as Prog Rock. The bands performances were very much in the  progressive punk ethos, not showy or overblown, if highly accomplished. Marquee Moon is one of those albums that you listen to every ten years and rediscover as a masterpiece. Adventure is more accessible if maybe less monumental. 

I saw Verlaine several times as both a solo artist and as a member of Television. Rather comically, I recall a solo gig in1987 at the International in Manchester, where Verlaine was billed as a punk legend. One local, expecting to hear music sounding like the Pistols or The Heartbreakers, was completely enraged by the soft, technically perfect tones and thoughtful melodies. He started shouting "Tommy, you F***ng sell out" only for the bloke next to him to say "Oi, this is what they always sounded like, shut up". 

After the passing of Verlaine, I got to thinking about the way the music industry treats genius's like Verlaine, who fit no pigeon hole and aren't particularly interested in conforming to anyone's idea of what they should be. In the Jazz world, there are many small labels that keep artists busy developing new tracks. In the non Jazz world, many brilliant artists almost seem to have given up on pushing themselves. Many artists seme to take the view "It's not worth my while recording new material, as no one wants to hear it live and no one buys the records". His last album, "Songs and other things" was released in 2006. Surely it is a complete failure of the industry if a genius like Verlaine was playing but not recording new material for 17 years. Radio stations, record labels and us as punters need to really think what we want music to be to us.  We need to support artists in growing and developing. I am all for enjoying the hits at gigs, but we have to try and embrace new material, listen to new albums before we see the gigs and try and 'get' what they are doing and why. 

Just imagine for a minute a world where David Bowie hung up his recording boots after The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and just carried on churning out the same show? No Station to Station, Low or Heroes, No Lazarus. Bowie had the stature to carry on recording and innovating. Recording high quality albums is a lengthy and quite costly process, if you want to engage the best musicians. The commercial labels are not interested in doing this, if they do not feel that there's a realistic chance of a big return. Whereas when Bowie started, he was given leeway to experiment, Verlaine who was only a few years later, was never cut the same slack. He would never be a Bowie in terms of commercial success, but I cannot believe that there was no audience at all for his music, with an intelligent degree of support and marketing to the people who might be an audience for his music. When I listen to Verlaine's music, especially the later tracks, I am always surprised it wasn't used more in films etc. I cannot believe that a label would fail to recoup if they supported people with talent. It is an acute failing of the industry that the only way you'll hear albums such as "songs and things" is on dodgy Youtube playlist. 

If you like the electric guitar and well written songs, checkout Marquee Moon. It should be a part of any self respecting vinyl collection.

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